Summer Reading 2014

A number of people have expressed interest in what I've been reading during the summer break.  Here is a list in no particular order:

Nancy Kline, Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind

Jonathan Beckman, How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne

Adin Steinsaltz, My Rebbe

Alison Hardingham et al, The Coach's Coach: Personal Development for Personal Developers

Dennis Prager & Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism

Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm


Hayyim Angel, Peshat isn't so Simple

Finis Leavell Beauchamp, The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man


Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch


Isaiah's Comfort and Today's Prophets: a Message of Hope

Sermon Notes 09/08/13 - VaEtchanan & Nachamu 5774

The palpable sense of relief that generally follows Tisha B’Av is absent this year.  I usually feel that having spent three weeks contemplating the destruction of the Temple and other horrors of Jewish history, I’ve met my obligation and can leave Tisha B’Av refreshed, ready for the summer holidays and with one eye already on Rosh HaShanah.  This year, however, given the recent conflict in Israel and the shocking increase in anti-Semitism in Europe, the air is heavy, laden with uncertainty and ambivalence – almost guilt – at having moved back to normal life post-Tisha B’Av.  It feels to me that the notoriously flimsy boundary between valid criticism and naked anti-Semitism is in danger of collapse.

This past week, the spectre of divestment from Israel again raised its head.  I suspect that for many it will be the anti-Israel instrument of choice for in the months ahead, in preference to the rather more demanding option of reasoned discussion.  Those it affects most are our students on campus, who often find themselves on the front line of anti-Israel hostility. Even if their convictions are strong, their Israel experience is characterised by the constant need to justify and defend.  The opportunity that I had as a student to create what Ambassador Daniel Taub once described to me as ‘my Israel’ narrative – the space that allowed me to consider what Israel meant to me, what I aspired for it to be and what my role might be in attaining that – is commonly denied our students, who are constantly on the back foot.

It is in that vein that we turn to today’s haftarah, the first of the so-called ‘seven of comfort’ read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh HaShanah, selected from the 40th chapter of Isaiah.  It starts with the famous line:

נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם

Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

To whom is God is addressing His words – who should comfort My people?  The Aramaic Targum offers the obvious answer – God is speaking through Isaiah to His prophets:

נבייא אתנביאו תנחומין על עמי

My prophets! Prophesy comfort to My people. (Targum Onkelos ad loc.)

This reading (also favoured by Rashi) does not address the repetition of the word נחמו – comfort, something that can only be understood properly with reference to the next verse:

 דברו על לב ירושלם... כי מלאה צבאה כי נרצה עונה כי לקחה מיד ידוד כפלים בכל חטאתיה

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem... her time of estrangement has been fulfilled and her transgression has been forgiven, for she has been doubly punished by God for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:2)

It seems that the Jewish people require a double measure of comfort because their punishment has been doubled, a view validated by midrashic sources (e.g. Midrash Tanchuma Devarim 1).

Whatever the intention of the verses, we are only too familiar with this ‘double punishment’ – the media distortions, the obvious double standards of Israel’s detractors (where are the mass demonstrations against daily massacres in Syria and exterminations in Iraq?) and the frequent uncritical adoption of a single version of a war narrative, when, as always, there are multiple perspectives.

If we are subject to ‘double punishment’, we need double comfort, as God demanded from our prophets.  They must replace pain with comfort, negativity with positivity and despair with hope.

But today there are no prophets and so the call of Isaiah must go out to their modern-day substitutes – the leaders of our communities.  That call is not restricted to rabbis or other formal leaders, but it goes out to everyone engaged in Jewish life who is able to do something.  All of us can write a letter to an MP or minister, respond to a blog-post, speak out sensibly against all bias and bigotry, attend an event, support communal efforts to counteract the negativity and inspire others to do likewise.

An unfathomable aspect of the current situation is the unwillingness of many free-world leaders to articulate something obvious.  Many of those who violently attack and seek the ultimate elimination of the State of Israel, and especially their financial backers, harbour the same long-term intentions towards Christians and, indeed, the whole of Western society.  As much as we worry about events in Israel and Europe, we are not oblivious to the brutal, barbaric persecutions of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq.  I believe that Israel and the Jews are just first in line; in reality, the very fabric of our society is imperilled for all people, regardless of faith or creed.  Emphasising these threats is one way of focusing the attention of others.

Yet as well as highlighting these wrongs, we must double our message of hope and comfort.  If the pain is doubled, the message of hope must be doubly powerful.

The importance of articulating the message is highlighted by Isaiah a few verses further into his prophecy:

על הר גבה עלי לך מבשרת ציון הרימי בכח קולך מבשרת ירושלם הרימי אל תיראי

Ascend a high mountain, herald of Zion.  Raise your voice powerfully, herald of Jerusalem.  Raise it, do not be afraid... (Isaiah 40:9)

 We have to carry our message of hope to high places and speak it where it can be heard.  We should never underestimate the impact we can have, nor where we have friends – sometimes critical friends – but friends nonetheless.  They are everywhere, members of every religious groups – Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists – and of none.  They exist at the workplace, among journalists and at universities.  We must redouble our efforts to build friendly, functional relationships with them, even when we disagree about Israel, or, indeed, anything else.

This is one message of hope.  The other is that that our voice, even if it small, cannot and will not be silenced.

נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלקיכם